One of the most interesting Memphis music stories of the past couple of years has been the union — half a country away — of a couple of expatriate Memphians separated by a generation.
Folk-era vet Bob Frank and younger alt-country survivor John Murry came together in the California Bay Area a few years ago, releasing the album World Without End, a collection of murder ballads that became a cult hit and took Frank and Murry on a European tour.
The pair followed up World Without End earlier this year with Brinkley, Ark. (And Other Assorted Love Songs), another thematic, if less tightly knit, collection that pushed from folk ballads into blue-eyed country soul. With a third duo album as well as solo albums on the horizon, Frank and Murry will return to Memphis this weekend for a rare local gig.
Murry, who has been splitting time between Oakland and his native Tupelo since this summer, says the Memphis show was booked around other business he and Frank are conducting in the area.
"It's the byproduct of a couple of shows we're doing in Nashville, a couple of showcases we're doing the weekend after [the Memphis show]," Murry says.
The Nashville shows were booked around a planned drop-in at folk/roots label Vanguard Records, for whom Frank released a celebrated but long out-of-print solo album in the early '70s.
"We're going to go to Vanguard and ask them for the master tapes back, with someone filming the whole thing," Murry says. "They're going to say they don't know where they are. People have been asking for years for [Bob] to re-release it, and we're trying to find a way to do it where no one can get sued."
In Memphis, Murry will deliver a collection of material for an upcoming — and long-awaited in some quarters — solo album to local producer Kevin Cubbins.
"I've been working on it for over two years now," Murry says. "I have a hard drive full of songs in their basic form, so I'm giving them to Kevin, and he's gonna finish it. He'll mix it. Kevin has a deeper understanding. There's far less pretense and more depth to him than a lot of [more well-known producers]."
While here, Frank and Murry also will go into the studio with Cubbins to record a single provoked by an unusual request.
A couple of years ago, Frank received an e-mail from Dylan Hartsfeld, an American soldier then serving in Iraq. Hartsfeld had found Frank and Murry's website and knew Frank because Hartsfeld's father had been a fan of Frank's Vanguard album and had played it for his son. The son ordered all of Frank and Murry's records and had them sent to his father.
"Later, Bob got a call from the dad telling him his son had been killed," Murry says. "He had been hit by an IED in Iraq, and his shoulder was pretty much destroyed. So he'd been transferred to Walter Reade and put on some heavy-duty pain medications."
After his discharge, Hartsfeld moved to Kentucky to live with his father. Then last September, he fell down some basement stairs. Fearing his son had reinjured his shoulder, his father called 911.
What happened next in what has become a controversial case is murky, but Hartsfeld was shot and killed by a local deputy, who claimed Hartsfeld had threatened him with a machete. Other witnesses, however, said Hartsfeld was carrying a broken hockey stick.
"The dad called Bob and said, 'I know you did this record of murder ballads. Could you do a record about my son?'" Murry says.
Murry and Frank have granted the wish by writing a song called simply "Dylan Hartsfeld," which they'll record with Cubbins this weekend and release online and as a vinyl single.
In addition to Murry's upcoming solo album (which he expects to be released sometime next season) and Frank's upcoming follow-up to his 2008 Memphis International Records solo album, Red Neck, Blue Collar, Murry and Frank have begun work on their next duo album.
It will be partially in the style of World Without End — story songs rooted in real events — but divorced from the "murder ballads" concept.
"It didn't have the effect it was intended to have," Murry says of World Without End. "The people who really liked that record were the people who buy every Nick Cave record. That [kind of sensationalism] wasn't the point. The [new songs] are not that dark and aren't as folkie."
In the meantime, Murry says he expects to play more Memphis shows when he returns to Tupelo in January. Why decamp to Tupelo and not Memphis? Murry says it's not for family reasons.
"I don't want to be in Memphis," he says. "I felt like if I stayed in Memphis, I'd either be forced to do something or forced to talk to myself about why I'm not doing something. I don't do much [in Tupelo]. I fish a lot. Nobody in Tupelo does much of anything. They're just a bunch of rednecks, really."